Perceptions of racial and ethnic bias in Maryland courts are widespread, especially among minorities and low-income residents, a special commission has found. The panel recommended, among other measures, creating procedures to hear bias complaints and taking steps to increase juror diversity.

Forty percent of those responding to a statewide survey from the commission agreed that Maryland courts "act impartially toward both sides without regard to race/ethnicity and economic status."

The level of confidence in the court system tracked closely with race and economic status. For example, one in five minorities agreed with that statement, as did one in four low-income respondents.

"Our litigants should not be made to feel they're discriminated against," said James B. Butler, president of the Monumental City Bar Association, the oldest and largest black bar in the state. Butler called the findings troubling.

The findings of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Judicial Process were reported last week to Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. The commission said its conclusions were consistent with those of similar studies elsewhere in the country.

The survey was sent primarily to litigants who had cases in state courts -- civil, criminal, family, traffic or juvenile -- in 2001 and 2002. Almost 500 people responded to the 136-question survey.

The panel noted that it found only perceptions of bias and that it could not say whether those opinions reflect actual unfairness.

"The only way to ever determine whether the perceptions are based in fact is to examine the specific cases, and you can't go out and just examine a million cases," said Dale R. Cathell, a Court of Appeals judge who is the commission's chairman.

He said litigation, by its very nature, leaves some participants feeling they have won and others feeling they have lost. Litigants who feel they have lost, particularly those from populations with histories of facing discrimination, might in some cases wrongly attribute the outcome to bias, Cathell said.

"They may believe, 'It's happening to me because I'm African American,' when, in fact, maybe it's happening because your witness didn't show up," he said. Still, Cathell said he thinks steps should be taken to address the perception of unfairness.

Overall, nearly 60 percent of respondents, including less than 45 percent of minority respondents, said the court process was "fair." Less than 40 percent of people making $18,000 or less a year thought the process was fair, while more than 80 percent of those making more than $100,000 considered it fair.

Of minorities, 54 percent said that based on their experiences in court, "white people receive better treatment than non-whites." Fewer than one in 10 white people came to the same conclusion.

The commission also received written comments. Among them was a complaint that a certain judge had offered, as the writer put it, a "Hispanic discount program," reducing fines for traffic violations. Another writer complained that "the wearing of dreadlocks" had affected the outcome "of my trial [in] an unfair and worse manner." Others praised the court system as "generally fair" and said "everybody was treated as a human being."

The panel suggested hiring more multilingual employees and studying whether child-care compensation for low-income jurors might increase the diversity of jury pools. It also recommended holding workshops to explain court procedures and informing the public that prosecutors, defense lawyers, police departments and social service agencies are not controlled primarily by the judiciary.

"These other entities should also be made aware of the images that court users have of them and should be encouraged to take steps to improve their images," the report said.

When he received the report, Bell said its recommendations would be considered. Some would cost money to implement, meaning the legislature would decide whether to pay for them by increasing the courts' appropriation.

Charles B. Day, a federal magistrate who served as vice chairman of the commission, said some of the changes could come at little cost. He noted a recommendation that a statement affirming the courts' commitment to fairness be displayed on bulletin boards.

"I hope that by identifying these areas through the study, we have placed them in a high-priority category," Day said.